Across the Bridge

© Paul O’Kane, December 2011

Across the bridge, hugging the path by the reeds, Maomi faded into the night. We lingered. This was one of the few places in the cramped city from where you could watch someone slowly disappear back into their own life leaving you to yours.

Before turning homeward we took a look down the river’s length. Here its glossy black surface escaped the city like nothing else could, carving out an ancient, natural space. But in the middle distance, where it was crossed by busy roads, sheets of white light reflected on its surface making me look up for a moon, but there was none. Tagen shared the strange thought that even this river would soon have nowhere to go.

Even in a world well used to sensation it had come as a shock to learn that earth was, after all, not the only planet in the universe capable of supporting life, but that it was the last. This news, coupled with the acceptance that we had outstayed its welcome and drastically accelerated its demise eventually changed the way people behaved, but not in a way that could fix things. If anything, people had grown more insular, thankfully less nationalistic yet more individuated than ever. This was a planet populated by Robinson Crusoes who, realising we had collectively fumbled and lost the world itself nevertheless became worlds of our own.

A few days after we said bye to Maomi I was perched by the 3rd floor window of a cramped surgery peering through a gap in the blinds. I could see down a sharp-angled slice of main-street where the setting winter sun was glancing across as yet unlit neon signs. A snort from a suction pipe drew my attention into the room where Tagen was having blemishes lasered off her face. Milligrams of ‘unsightly’ flesh set loose by the laser were instantly whipped into the assistant’s hose to accumulate in a receptive container which, I mused, must be filling up with someone’s definition of the antithesis of beauty.

Given our recently acknowledged plight time no-longer pressed so heavily on humanity. Far from inducing panic, imminent demise induced a languid narcissism and acted like an existential anaesthetic on anyone who cared enough to feel. The ultimate, somewhat ludicrous end of The One Big Story made our little lives all the smaller and less like stories than ever, while the fact that we were all going nowhere made us nobodies. Events seemed disconnected and inconsequential. More like pixels than people we played a part in some bigger picture but had no sense of agency or influence beyond immediate experience.

Take Maomi, once a poet she’d become a poem, and just as she went out of mind as soon as she was out of sight that night any life was no more or less than some disparate episodes. We segued as best we could from one haiku-like event to the next without seeking enlightenment, and maintained a dull awareness of unfolding micro-worlds triggered by our presence but which were really none of our business.

The face of the earth had long been picked clean by locust-like monopolists who believed, well into the 21st century, there was still something to be gained by acquisition. That was before the full truth had been revealed by the longest-ranging probes, the most complex data-processing and the most powerful computers. Wealth was no-longer a goal and only experience would serve as viable currency. And so we exchanged experiences, traded them, and this, if nothing else made our little worlds go around while The Big One ground to its halt.

It was beautiful in its own way to live this life of images in which we ourselves were little more than episodes in someone else’s encounter. For many, the outside world no longer held any interest. People focused increasingly on pet concerns. Tagen told me of a man who so rarely cleaned his house that when his young son painted a picture of ‘home’ the windows were depicted -quite accurately- in thick dirty yellow.

In the surgery the doctor offered Tagen a cheap, cod-Rococo hand mirror to view his handiwork but she said she’d rather wait. I turned back to the window, the configuration of traffic in main street had barely changed. There was some kind of jam. It was growing dark and the neon was coming on but none of the motorists seemed impatient. No-one beeped their horn, shouted or gesticulated. The motorists of this world had grown patient at last, but way too late alas.

As we left the building we bumped into Mr Extreme, a forty-something eternal teenager who always wore black and balanced frontal baldness with a pony-tail down the back. Mr Extreme ran a 24/7 games parlour here in the basement where a new generation of games and gamers revelled in aimless, high definition motion effects that led to no particular goal. We turned into the darker backstreets and an elderly woman manoeuvred past clumsily wielding a sack trolley along the broken paving and uneven tarmac to transport a half unwrapped mirror, almost as big as herself. Its reflection flashed and jiggled. The mirror briefly revealed our faces and Tagen threw a hand up saying ‘god! There was a glimpse of darkness, a quiver of neon and it was gone.